Riots erupt in Iran after Ahmadinejad declares victory

Huge swaths of the Iranian capital erupted in fiery riots that stretched into the early hours today as hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared victory in his quest for a second term amid allegations of widespread fraud and reports that his main challenger had been placed under house arrest.

At the moment that the president was promising a "bright and glorious future" for Iran in a late-night televised address, supporters of reformist rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi were battling with police and militiamen in riot gear throughout Tehran in the most serious clashes in the capital since a student uprising 10 years ago.

In the streets and squares where young people had danced and waved green banners in support of Mousavi just days ago, baton-wielding officers chased and beat mobs of hundreds of demonstrators chanting, "Down with dictatorship!" and "Give me my vote back!"

Tear gas, searing smoke and the smell of burning trash bins filled the night air as protesters ripped up Iranian flags, which had become the symbol of the Ahmadinejad campaign.

Video showing unrest in the city of Shiraz emerged early today, but reports of other outbreaks could not be confirmed as authorities tried to limit the scale of the demonstrations by curtailing electronic communications. Websites such as Facebook and YouTube, available during the campaign, were suddenly filtered. For hours Saturday, the Tehran cellphone network was shut down.

Official results released by the Interior Ministry, which is under the control of the president, showed Ahmadinejad with more than 63% of the vote -- a surprise performance given turnout figures of 80% and hours-long lines of city dwellers mostly opposed to him. Mousavi received 35% of the vote, according to the results.

The Obama administration, which has sought to reach out to the Islamic Republic, expressed concern about the results, as many here predicted a new wave of repression to crush the outpouring of civic participation that swelled during the election season.

"Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement Saturday. "We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities."

Mousavi and fellow reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi strongly disputed the results in public statements. Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament, called the results "engineered" and "ridiculous."

After security forces prevented journalists from attending an early afternoon news conference he tried to hold, Mousavi, a former prime minister, released a statement alleging a conspiracy to manipulate the vote results and saying it showed he was the winner.

"I will not submit to this dangerous charade," he said. He had announced a long list of alleged irregularities, including thousands of his poll monitors being barred from the voting stations the previous night. Iran allows no independent observers to monitor the vote.

As the day drew to a close, both campaigns reported that the candidates were under house arrest hours after their offices and affiliated websites had been shut down.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's top political and religious leader, ignored the dispute over Friday's vote and hailed the 80% turnout as a great victory for the nation against the plots of its enemies.

"Your epic Friday was a striking and unprecedented event, in which the political growth, determined political visage and the civic capability and potential of the Iranian nation were beautifully and splendidly displayed before the eyes of the world," he said in a speech on state television.

The supreme leader's approval means Mousavi supporters have no legal recourse to contest the vote.

But even as the results were released and effusively praised, demonstrators allied with Mousavi defied Iran's restrictions on unauthorized public gatherings and began assembling in rowdy protests.

A demonstration formed in Tehran's Vanak Square in midafternoon. Mostly young protesters, some wearing surgical masks to guard against tear gas attacks, set fires and blocked traffic as older Iranians stood along the sidelines cheering them on, occasionally joining in the chanting. Passing drivers honked in support. A woman with her head scarf ripped off screamed defiantly at the stunned security officers who had just beaten her.

Riot police chased demonstrators down streets, beating and bloodying those who refused to move, and running off as the demonstrators fought back with rocks.

Along nearby Mirdamad Street, a major thoroughfare, shopkeepers urged panicked pedestrians into their stores for protection, in one instance locking the gate as a group of black-clad, truncheon-wielding riot police approached menacingly. Residents in nearby high-rises cheered on the protesters.

"It's a fraud," said one female Mousavi supporter, who declined to give her name. "I can't believe it. Last night we celebrated victory. And this morning Ahmadinejad was the winner."

On a side street near northwest Tehran's Mohseni Square, a group of helmeted hard-line Ansar-e Hezbollah militiamen on motorcycles rhythmically beat their batons on their riot shields as they prepared to attack a gathering crowd.

"God is great!" they chanted. "God praise Hezbollah!"

After midnight in the Jordan neighborhood, motorcycle riot police in body armor chased protesters and passersby, striking men and women. Teary-eyed teenagers fled, clutching their backs or arms in agony.

"They broke my head! They broke my head!" one man screamed as he ran, gripping his bloodied forehead.

The pop-pop-pop of tear-gas canisters could be heard amid the chaos. Police officers dragged demonstrators into waiting vans.

Some protesters fought back fiercely. For at least 15 minutes, Ansar-e Hezbollah militiamen and young men fought for control of a pedestrian bridge over a major highway. At one point a group of militiamen surrounded a fallen protester and began pummeling him with their batons. A hail of rocks forced them into retreat.

Along the highway beneath the bridge, drivers stopped their cars, leaned on their horns and shouted slogans in support of the protesters.

On Vali Asr Street, another main road, cars began beeping their horns in the rhythm that had become the unofficial signal of the Mousavi campaign during boisterous weeks before the election Friday.

Over the last six presidential and parliamentary elections, moderate candidates fared well during times of high turnout while conservatives tended to win during low turnout. In 1997 and 2001, with high voter participation, Mousavi ally Mohammad Khatami coasted to victory over conservative rivals with about 70% of the vote, while Ahmadinejad received 62% of the vote amid a tepid 48% turnout in 2005.

His victory this year with 80% turnout would suggest that many of those who stayed home or voted for his opponent last time voted for him this year, a scenario analysts consider unlikely.

The results also showed Ahmadinejad winning the city of Tabriz, where a large urbanized Azeri population was believed to strongly support Mousavi, an Azeri who drew huge crowds at rallies.

The electoral commission also defied its own rules by certifying the vote before alleged irregularities were resolved.

Local news reports did not mention the protests or the claims of fraud by the Mousavi campaign.

The vote suggests a further consolidation of power by hard-line elements of the country's security forces and the Revolutionary Guard, which back Ahmadinejad, over clerics such as Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who were pillars of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and criticized by the president as corrupt during the campaign.

The Revolutionary Guard issued a statement two days before the election warning that it would crush any popular rebellion.

Now that he's won a second and final term, some suggested that Ahmadinejad might jettison the hard-line supporters he needed during the elections, moderate his rhetoric and policies and move to the center. But many say his rigid personality and ideological fervor make him incapable of making such a shift.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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